The successful subterranean test by North Korea of a hydrogen bomb, which they claim is capable of being mounted on to an intercontinental ballistic missile, though predictable, has raised alarm bells throughout the international community, particularly among the unified command centres in South Korea and Japan, which cannot operate independently of the U.S Pacific Command. As the U.S and North Korea engage in daily bombastic rhetorical tongue lashing and military provocations, the result is the further deployment of more U.S military hardware, the scrambling of Japan and South Korea to increase their military budgets, install more THAAD anti missile batteries and in South Korea’s case even reopen the consideration of stationing nuclear weapons on its soil as a countervailing force to Pyongyang. This has tragically led to the ongoing and seemingly irreversible militarization of the Korean peninsula and necessitated the perceived strategic necessity of all regional countries to up the ante in a new arms race. We can be certain that with every precipitous escalation of tensions between North Korea and the US, China and Russia will strengthen their far eastern flanks and common border with North Korea to offset the clear security threat the US THAAD systems pose, in addition to the disastrous refugee crisis that would ensue in the event of a pre-emptive US strike on the North.
China and Russia have roundly condemned the nuclear test as it undermines the stated aim of the UN Security Council for denuclearization of the peninsula and non-proliferation initiatives, but remain firmly convinced that the only way to avert a thermonuclear disaster is through active diplomacy, closely following the Sino-Russian ‘double freeze’ proposal and roadmap to peaceful de-escalation and the provision of a conclusive peace treaty. The Russian side has especially stated that the implementation of more punitive sanctions against North Korea has exhausted all its utility and is futile because it does the opposite of its stated goal of deterrence – it engenders fear in North Korea, rallies its people to the regime and increases its belligerence. Ever since the end of the Cold War, the North Korean regime has followed a predictable, yet the rational pattern of destabilization and weapons acquisition based on self-preservation and fear of encirclement. It has witnessed the feckless deceptive way in which the U.S has wrought destruction on countries like Iraq and Libya after coercing those countries into giving up their nuclear weapons and has determined that the only safeguard against U.S aggression is having a nuclear deterrent. This insight is not lost on the Chinese elites and indeed some honest Western analysts who know that North Korea will only terminate its nuclear and missile programme if it receives ironclad commitments from the US of the security of its regime and the end of its aggressive military posture. By contrast, the U.S under President Donald Trump has gone into overdrive and abandoned the era of strategic patience and dialogue and banked on the unrealistic notion that China would be willing to economically suffocate and isolate the DPRK (a useful buffer state) on behalf of the U.S in exchange for overlooking supposed Chinese intellectual property theft and U.S trade deficits.
This glaring miscalculation by Trump hasn’t stopped him from issuing truly drastic measures. He has empowered Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to devise trade restrictions, which really amount to economic blackmail – a refusal to trade with nations who do any business with the DPRK. Bullying nations such as Russia, China, India, Thailand and the Philippines who do legal business with North Korea will be vehemently opposed and further degrade international stability. One thing is certain though: while China is infuriated with its neighbour for dragging it into its own dogfight, the stability of North Korea is intertwined with China’s security. This has been clear since the Korean War and is encapsulated in the 1961 Sino-North Korean Mutual Defence and Cooperation Treaty. Unfortunately, the implications of this pact are rarely mentioned by Western pundits.